Last summer, Ryan Coonerty, a county supervisor in Santa Cruz, got word that the neighboring county of San Mateo was about to take a bold step in adapting to climate change. Rising seas are already eroding San Mateo’s coast, and the county will need to spend billions of dollars on new sea walls and other infrastructure to protect itself in the years to come. So in July, San Mateo, along with Marin County and the city of Imperial Beach, sued 37 fossil fuel companies, arguing that they should help pay for the damage their products cause.
Santa Cruz had also been feeling the effects of climate change. Waves were taking chunks out of coastal roads, Coonerty says, destroying utility pipes beneath them. The sea wasn’t the only problem: there was a years-long drought, followed by historic wildfires, followed by unusually intense winter storms, which triggered landslides causing $140 million in road damage and cutting off entire neighborhoods. “We’ve never had storm damage like that before,” Coonerty says. “At the end of the day, this is going to be billions of dollars in damage to public infrastructure. And the question is, are the oil companies going to stick the public with the bill after they’ve reaped untold profits and lied to us?”
In December, Santa Cruz filed a suit of its own. Nine cities and counties have now brought similar lawsuits, including San Francisco, Oakland, and New York. In recent weeks, officials in Los Angeles and Florida have discussed joining the fray.
There are several reasons why this wave of litigation is happening now. Frustration with the Trump administration’s opposition to climate action has led states and cities to take matters into their own hands. Recent floods, storms, and fires have also created a sense of urgency. Because of climate change, such events will only get more severe, and if cities are going to be prepared, they need to begin the expensive process of adapting their infrastructure now.
These lawsuits are also a sign that the science connecting climate change to damaging events has greatly improved. Santa Cruz, for instance, is suing not just for sea level rise, but for drought, wildfires, and other disasters, armed with recent research showing that climate change is already making them worse.
Not long ago, the phrase “no single event can be attributed to climate change” was repeated like a catechism. This is no longer true. Though scientists still warn that it’s inaccurate to speak of weather events being “caused” by climate change — weather always has multiple causes — better climate models, more powerful computers, and refined methodologies now allow researchers to quantify how climate change has increased the likelihood or severity of heat waves, droughts, deluges, and other extreme events.
The American Meteorological Society now publishes an annual compendium of studies examining the role of climate change in the previous year’s weather. This January’s issue marked an ominous milestone. For the first time, researchers found phenomena that couldn’t have happened in a world without industrial greenhouse gases. The record global heat of 2016, a strangely warm patch of water off Alaska known as “the blob,” and deadly heat waves in Asia weren’t just more likely because of climate change — they were only possible because of it.
“For the first time, researchers found phenomena that couldn’t have happened in a world without industrial greenhouse gases”
Meanwhile, new research is quantifying the amount of carbon dioxide that energy companies have added to the atmosphere over the course of their entire existence. Combined with attribution science, the two fields form a sort of climate forensics, enabling communities to point to an ostensibly natural disaster, find the fingerprints of climate change, and trace them back to an Exxon or BP.
If the current volley of lawsuits over adaptation costs are successful, they will likely be followed by others: Phoenix might sue over deadly heat, Boulder over its shrinking ski season, or Houston over torrential rain. The list of disasters exacerbated by climate change keeps getting longer. Recent attribution studies have found that climate change played a major role in everything from violent avalanches in Tibet to the bleaching of coral reefs in Australia.
Plaintiffs compare their cases to the pivotal tobacco litigation of the 1990s, hoping for a similar outcome but foreseeing similarly daunting obstacles. Like the states that brought the tobacco lawsuits, they face fantastically well-funded opponents and must convince courts of the causal link between major companies and widespread harm. No climate lawsuit has made it to trial in the US before.
Vic Sher, a partner at the firm Sher Edling LLP, which is leading several of the California lawsuits, says that one reason he believes the cities have a shot now is the science. “All of these earlier cases didn’t have the benefit of current attribution science, in terms of drawing the link between emissions and impacts, and emissions during a particular period, and attribution to particular corporations,” Sher says. “We have all that information now.”